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Greenville Business Magazine

Work From Home: Getting Stronger by the Minute

By L.C. Leach III

It’s been called the new normal, the new hybrid, and the future of office.

But regardless of the moniker or the reactions it inspires, working from home (WFH) is here to stay. 

And as the Covid-19 pandemic, which served as the catalyst for this new future, gradually subsides, WFH is expected to become a major influence in how U.S. business offices will be structured, and perceived, as necessary to sustaining a national workforce.

“Working from home is dominating our lives,” said Stanford University professor and researcher Nicholas Bloom. “The office will survive, but working from home post-Covid should be what we look forward to.”

In a June 2020 Stanford University study, Bloom found that 42 percent of the U.S. workforce was working from home full time as a way to combat the pandemic.

Thusly, the staff in offices large and small in every sector of U.S. business – including professional, finance, technology, retail, education and manufacturing – have gotten to see firsthand how, or if, this kind arrangement would work.

And the arrangement is not only working, it is already to the point of becoming a regular part of how U.S. business gets done.

For example, a recent survey by CBRE, an American commercial real estate services and investment firm, concluded that organizations are already preparing to meet employee demand for remote work.

Future competition for talent will take place over the battlegrounds of not just flexible work policies, but also flexible work support such as stipends, home office equipment and technologies.

“It is still too early to know with certainty how long new work behaviors will endure and how extensively they will influence demand for office space,” said Steve Smith, managing director of all CBRE operations in the Charleston, Columbia and Greenville-Spartanburg areas. “But responses to recent CBRE surveys show that most companies anticipate supporting a hybrid workforce with many employees who work in the office some days and remotely others.”

Smith’s outlook is supported by other findings and practices.

The South Carolina state government, for example, employs more than 73,000 people.

But as of March 5, 2021, state agencies and institutions reported that 26,995, or 35 percent of this total, were “working remotely,” said Kelly Coakley, director of strategic communications for the state’s department of administration.

And PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a multinational professional services network of firms, headquartered in London, England, conducted a recent survey from public and private companies in three sectors: financial services (43 percent), technology, media and telecommunications (31 percent), and retail and consumer products (26 percent).

Based on this survey of 133 company executives and 1,200 employees, findings are pointing toward several factors now driving a new WFH office footprint strategy:

More than half of U.S. employees want to work remotely three days a week or more.

Most U.S. companies are heading toward a hybrid office work week, splitting work time between home and office.

Employee productivity improved over the prolonged work-from-home period.

So far, 83 percent of employers say the shift to remote work has been successful for their company.

By July, 2021, 75 percent of U.S. executives anticipate at least half of the office workforce will be back on-site. But only 61 percent of office workers expect to return to the office for at least half of their time by July.

“The traditional office will survive, but it may look different,” Nicholas Bloom said. “Of the dozens of firms I have talked to, the typical plan is that employees will work from home between one and three days a week and come into the office the rest of the time.”

But this degree of optimism varies, depending on the survey and interpretation of the data.

For instance, Global Workplace Analytics (GWA), a research-based consulting firm in San Diego, California, that helps organizations optimize work-from-home, telecommuting, and on-site workplace strategies, estimates that 25-30 percent of the U.S. workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.

And in its own April 2020 online survey of 2,800 global workers to find out their preferences, GWA reported that 76 percent of global office workers and 82 percent of U.S. office workers say they want to continue to work from home, at least weekly, when the pandemic is over.

“That’s approximately 75 million U.S. employees,” said GWA President Kate Lister.

She added that if such a model were to eventually happen, the impact on commercial real estate “would be massive,” as the demand for U.S. office space could eventually shrink by more than 1 billion square feet from where it is today.

“The genie is out of the bottle,” Lister said, “and it’s not going back in.”

How long it might be before such a scenario might happen is anyone’s guess.

But regardless of which survey or outlook you prefer, one thing appears certain: the separation of work and home life among U.S office workers is going to be a lot closer from now on.

“The Covid pandemic has challenged and changed our relationships with work and how many of us do our jobs,” Bloom said. “And from this point on, there’s no real going back.”